Elvis impersonators come in all shapes, sizes, genders and ethnicities, and many are represented by trade groups like the U.K.-based Association of Professional Elvis Presley Tribute Artists. But among these dime-a-dozen lookalikes, sound-alikes and wannabes one stands out.
He is El Vez, the Mexican Elvis.
Robert Lopez, the man behind El Vez's trademark pencil mustache and slick pompadour, has toured North America, Europe and Australia, opening for the likes of David Bowie and Kiss. And with the help of fetishistic merchandise like hotel-room keys and tiny vials of sweat, he's gradually worked his way into the annals of American pop culture—he was even once the subject of a question on Jeopardy!, he says.
This year, a section on El Vez is included in American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music, a traveling exhibition created by the EMP Museum in Seattle that covers the music of Latino greats like Ritchie Valens and Carlos Santana. Lopez's rip-away gold lamé mariachi suit, a Mexicanized version of the suit Presley wears on the cover of 1959's 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong, is currently on display at an expanded version of the exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution's international Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Lopez, 51, isn't any old Elvis impersonator—he's a master entertainer in the Las Vegas mold, known for putting on spectacular performances loaded with pop-culture references, costume changes and political messages full of Chicano pride.
“He's a genius,” says Adam Gimbel, the local musician behind the mashup cover-band project Cover Me Badd. “Everything I've ever done as Cover Me Badd has come from the basics of what makes El Vez so great: Throw in everything but the kitchen sink. Keep things moving, but don't be afraid to grind the show to a halt to talk. Have a really good band, and make it so anyone can enjoy it....”
During El Vez's performances of “En el Barrio,” one of his most popular tunes, he sings rewritten verses (“As she shoos the flies / on a hot and smoggy summer morn / another brown baby is born”), drops Chuck Berry references and launches into a rousing rendition of Traffic's “Dear Mr. Fantasy”—an oblique tribute to Mr. Roarke of the television series Fantasy Island, played by famed Mexican actor Ricardo Montalbán.
The result is a mix of pointed social commentary and pure entertainment.
“It's like putting the medicine in the ice cream,” Lopez says by phone from his home in Seattle. “It's a little bit subversive in the idea that, OK, the next time you think about that song, you'll think about the way I presented it to you.”
Bo and raised in Chula Vista, Lopez started out in the late-'70s L.A. punk scene as a member of The Zeros, an influential Chula Vista punk band sometimes referred to as the “Mexican Ramones.” He first adopted the El Vez persona in 1988. After hosting an Elvis-themed show at La Luz de Jesus, his L.A. art gallery, Lopez ventured to Memphis to compete in an Elvis-impersonator contest. Now, 24 years later, El Vez is still going strong.
The project began as a joke, but Lopez soon discovered that he could use Elvis as a platform to tell Latino stories and spread Chicano pride. One of his first songs was “Immigration Time,” a take on “Suspicious Minds” that addresses the struggles of undocumented immigrants. “I'm caught in a trap / I can't walk out,” he sings, “because my foot's caught in this border fence.”
Today, “Immigration Time” is more relevant than ever. But Lopez suggests that he might rewrite “En el Barrio” to reflect the changing times—gang violence in East L.A. and Barrio Logan has slowed down, he notes, while gentrification has crept in.
“The next version of ‘En el Barrio' will probably be about, ‘Here comes Starbucks and the condos,'” he says. “‘Where do you go from the barrio if you can't afford to stay there anymore?'”
El Vez's songs focus on Latino figures like Frida Kahlo and Emiliano Zapata, but they sometimes resonate with wider audiences. Once, when Lopez performed in Germany, a group of young Turkish immigrants told him that they loved “Immigration Time,” telling him, “You're singing about us.”
Indeed, Lopez has a universalist credo. His motto is: “Think globally, act Elvisly.”
“It's a whole idea of being king, King Elvis, but it's a Latino point of view,” he says. “But it could be a black, Muslim, whatever point of view. It's the idea of the crown… applying it to whoever you are. Oh, I could be King, too.”
El Vez performs at the Adams Avenue Street Fair on Saturday, Sept. 24. elvez.net